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A student has come to ask me for a reference letter for a graduate school program. She’s taken two of my courses and is bright, hard working and conscientious. She deserves all the support I can give her.

That’s why the first thing I tell her to do is to approach a tenured faculty member to write her a letter. In the curious world of academia, as rank-obsessed as the army, my reference means less because I am merely an adjunct, a sessional or a contract instructor, one of hundreds employed by the university to teach on a per-course basis. I am not counted among those who matter. A letter from a tenured professor can probably get this student farther than I can.

The student shrugs. She doesn’t know which of her instructors are tenured and which are not. For all we know, she could have taken courses with nothing but sessionals throughout her university career. In September 2013, there were 867 contract instructors employed by the university where I teach, compared to 840 ranked faculty. We are the majority. Students, blissfully oblivious to academic hierarchies, tend to call us all “Professor.” But they are the only ones to regard us as equals.

Contract instructors teach fully 40 per cent of the university’s courses, earning roughly $7000 per course (a tenure-track assistant professor starts at more than ten times that). We are forbidden to teach more than two courses a semester, so our incomes are restricted. Our courses must be applied for every semester, regardless of how many times we have taught them before. If we enjoy any benefits at all, it is thanks to our unions. Last bargaining round, my union finally got us a health care plan. Many contract profs have no such supports. Consider the story of Margaret Mary Vojtko, the adjunct who taught for 25 years for a college that charged students $32,000 in tuition fees, yet who was abandoned to die in poverty.

We are more likely to teach the first courses students take — the huge, crowded lecture halls, the 100s and 200s. It’s a perk reserved for the faculty to teach the smaller, more advanced upper-level courses or the graduate seminars. That is, if they teach at all. Teaching students is regarded as an inferior pastime compared to conducting research, especially if your research brings grant money in. However, as a contract instructor, I am barred from applying from most research grants. I do manage to publish in my field quite a bit on my own time, but think of what I could accomplish if I had access to any of the institutional supports, such as paid research sabbaticals, that grease the rails of the tenure track.

Those who do manage to climb aboard that fabled track tend to ignore this fact when they point to their publication records and their research grants as evidence of a functioning meritocracy. But as one commentator in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently pointed out, take away that paid sabbatical, the good salary, the job security and professional benefits, and what do you have? A contract instructor. And there are more of us all the time. The more of us there are, the fewer full-time faculty members there eventually will be. They should be doing more to support our struggle, not accepting the notion that we are somehow inferior to them.

Last year, I was asking the departmental administrator about courses coming up for which I could apply. She mentioned one I had successfully taught before. Thanks to my collective agreement, I do have the right to incumbency for a course I have already taught. Unless, as the administrator pointed out, “a real faculty member might want it.” I resisted the urge to pinch my arms to see if I was real. Such petty degradations are commonplace for us. Because I do not depend upon my teaching gigs to live, because I am fortunate enough to be employed full-time in another job, one that I enjoy and that offers me benefits and enough money to live on, I decided to call her out on the snub via an email, and, to her credit, she apologized. But I know many colleagues — some of the brightest people I have ever encountered — who would not be able to speak out in that fashion because they rely on their teaching to make ends meet. I have nothing but admiration for my colleague, Andrew Robinson, who recently decided to go public about the treatment of contract instructors. I hope his career will not suffer as a consequence.

As contract instructors with no job security, we always have to be careful about what we say, even to students. Unlike tenured faculty, we live or die by our student evaluations, which affects our capacity to grade students critically, to give them constructive feedback and to challenge them in class. The university’s recent switch to online evaluations means that a student doesn’t even have to come to class now to evaluate me. They could skip every class but destroy my ability to teach next year.

The student and I are meeting in the foyer of one of the campus buildings. Technically, I have an office, which I don’t have to share with anybody — a rare piece of luck for a sessional — but I have to sign the office key out from the department and it’s closed for lunch. All around us are signs of the university’s affluence – shiny new buildings, banks of gleaming computers, sculptures, even a “living wall” of plants. Tuition fees have recently climbed to more than 50 per cent of the university’s revenues and student debt levels are soaring. I fear for the future our students face.

I want to help this student. I really do. Writing her a reference letter will mean an hour carved out of my precious personal time — an hour spent with my kids, an hour of sleep or relaxation before my workday begins tomorrow. If I were a faculty member, time would be allotted for such tasks and I would get professional credit for them. But every book review or reference letter I write is presently uncompensated, unacknowledged and invisible. Invisibility – there’s the rub. I think of the colleague who wrote a beautiful, moving letter to contract instructors recently. “I see you,” she said. So much depends for us upon visibility. And so much is invested in ensuring we are not seen. Unlike my colleague, I don’t think we can rely on more privileged faculty for much help. But I agree with her when she says we need to organize and mobilize. We need to get not only more visible, but more vocal. We need to feel our power.

I write the reference letter and am rewarded by a note from the student a few months later that tells me she was accepted into the graduate program and thanking me for helping her. I am glad for her. And I want to help her more by making some changes to the academic status quo. It’s a national disgrace and it needs to change.


Image: Flickr/Saranv

Aalya Ahmad

Aalya Ahmad

Aalya Ahmad has a PhD in comparative literature, a crush on George Orwell and a rather impressive collection of cloth bags from the various public service unions she has worked with over the years....